Whistling in the Dark: “Frank Duveneck: American Master” at Cincinnati Art Museum, December 18, 2020-March 28, 2021

February 20th, 2021  |  Published in *, January/February 2021

It’s long been discussed whether Duveneck’s lasting contribution to American art is more as a painter or a teacher. As a painter, his influence has been hard to characterize, but as teacher his impact is easier to trace.  At various times and places, he was a mentor to artists as diverse as John Henry Twachtman, Joseph Henry Sharp, Kenyon Cox, Robert Blum, John Rettig, Daniel Garber, Herman Wessel, Dixie Selden, two future heads of the Art Academy (Lewis Henry Meakin and James Roy Hopkins), modernist designer Russel Wright, and his own wife-to-be Elizabeth Boott.  It may even be that we can best measure Duveneck’s contribution to art history by the crowd of students, friends, and fellow painters who coalesced around him—the Merry Pranksters of their day?–becoming widely known as “Duveneck Boys.” In various configurations, they clustered together both abroad and at home. Though invariably male, they were cheerful, boisterous, and followed Duveneck’s lead in believing that making art was sociable and a blast. From this perspective, Duveneck seems like the opposite of a figure like Eakins, for whom painting was a more ostentatiously serious and solitary pursuit.

While this debate goes on, there is no question that Duveneck’s cultural standing is secure as a benefactor to the art world of Cincinnati, lending his opinions on old master acquisitions to figures like Mary Emery, leading the Art Academy, and donating in 1915—in an act clearly both extraordinarily generous and at least a little self-serving—the contents of his studio to the Cincinnati Art Museum. As a result, the CAM has incomparable resources to mount many different sorts of Duveneck shows. Indeed, even after taking away all the works that constitute the current exhibition, the CAM had enough Duvenecks to spare that it has hung practically another survey’s worth of his paintings from floor to ceiling in a gallery in the Museum’s Cincinnati Wing. In addition to giving more than a hundred paintings of his own (as well as a great many prints and drawings), he gifted paintings he owned by other artists, including two of my favorites in the CAM: Twachtman’s “Springtime” (c. 1884) which manages to be both epic and lyrical, and a 17th century Spanish painting now known as “Woman with a White Shawl” (c. 1650-75). Against a rich, black background, a woman looks over her shoulder at us. Her body, in a black dress, is defined by some vibrant, painterly white slashes, a delicately rendered transparent white shawl, and her own hand, holding onto her arm. Her expression is hard to pin down. Is she weary? Distrustful? She is surely watchful. Her pose seems to be both magisterial and inadvertent. She appears to be of the working or servant class, though I base that chiefly on the disorder of her hair and the lack of ornamentation in her clothes. Is she impatient to get back to work? Does she think we are up to no good?

Spanish School, “Woman with a White Shawl” (circa 1650–75), oil on canvas.

Over decades of curatorial research, the latter painting has sometimes been attributed to Velasquez and sometimes to his studio. It is now merely anonymous—but what it could be is a work by Duveneck. That is, it helps to tell us just what Duveneck saw when he looked at 17th century paintings, a reminder that when Duveneck went to study art in Munich, the thing that hit him like a ton of bricks was the Baroque—and in particular, Hals for his brushwork and Velasquez for his psychological—and spatial—depth. To those two I would add Rembrandt. Though the physical similarities between their works are much fewer, Rembrandt brought to his work an equivocal sense of just what a portrait was. Rembrandt—and many other artists around him in space and time—produced “tronies,” figurative paintings done from a model that are not exactly portraits. Though they have a great deal of particularity, their goal was not to represent an identifiable person, but to capture a fleeting expression, a fragment of a situation, an identity based on a costume or prop. They combine closely observed psychological depth with a kind of provisional theatricality.

Frank Duveneck, “Man with Red Hair” (c.1876), oil on canvas.

A great deal of Duveneck’s work in his Munich period might be considered tronies: a portrait that captures a moment of disguise. Duveneck’s haughty “Cavalier” (1879) has a theatricality that might belong to the 17th century or to the late 19th. His “Man with Red Hair” (c. 1876) is likely to be a representation of an associate of Duveneck’s dressed in a lace ruff that carries with it the feel of the subject and style of the Dutch Golden Age. Duveneck sometimes seems to have specialized in painting a range of masculine “types”—this one slightly over the hill with florid face and eyebrow arched, a bit of a bohemian and a bit of a banker, a casual psychological richness that characterizes much of Duveneck’s best paintings. From Duveneck’s perspective, the core of his most typical figurative work (as opposed to his more finished, commissioned pieces) is that something is being revealed and something is being concealed.

Throughout his career, Duveneck was a poseur who appreciated the poses of others. Though he was often praised—including by his wife—for his modesty, he can easily be picked out of many of the group photographs in which he appears as the one throwing his head back or striking an attitude or strutting. He carries a cheerfulness that should not be confused with modesty and a desire to show himself that should not be confused with self-revelation. In his “Self-Portrait” (1877), an august Duveneck looks out at us (or to be more literal, at himself as he paints his own image) more in shadow than in light. One eye is hidden in the shade of his strong forehead and the other is completely lost in shadow. His brow is furrowed; he is sporting something of a frown. I felt that the implication was that it was important to present himself, the artist, as a serious man (some of Rembrandt’s many self-portraits often make the same suggestion)—and we know that he is serous because he knows how to pose. Warhol would make a large portion of his career out of this same confluence.

But I wouldn’t want to give the impression that Duveneck’s work is solemn. Often it is anything but. In his “Self-Portrait” (c. 1878), he has painted himself blowing smoke rings. Partly, in true tronie tradition, this is because the blowing of smoke rings is such an outlandish and bravura moment to capture. Partly, as we shall see, Duveneck thought there was something particularly revelatory and stylish about how a person handles tobacco. It is part of Duveneck’s particular talent with capturing psychological richness that his smoke-blowing face might just as easily have been yodeling, or possibly screaming. I think in the smoke-ring self-portrait he is also suggesting that while an artist may scowl in high seriousness, he also affirms his uselessness, his commitment to being an idler. The more remarkable his accomplishments are with a brush, the less he wants to be held to them.

In terms of his relationship to the Baroque, no painter was more important to Duveneck than Hals, who seems to have inspired Duveneck to relish each brushstroke, to savor what each dab of paint reveals. His bravura style was admiringly spoken about by Duveneck’s contemporaries clear through our own contemporaries; indeed, it is one of the relatively few constants in people’s responses to his work over the past century and a half. As the excellent catalogue essay by Andre Dombrowski suggests, Duveneck’s style encourages us to appreciate the material qualities of oil paint—its odd mixture of wet (“juicy”) and dry, of flat and three-dimensional. His surfaces—and especially his rendering of the human form—are made up of pastiches of planes, each one defined, as often as not, by a single brushstroke. They fit together like a three-dimensional jigsaw or a mosaic. His style is a bold reinterpretation (and affirmation) of the Baroque conviction that the whole was made up of nothing more than the sum of its parts. Duveneck’s contemporaries thought of his work as being done in haste (a quality his admirers greatly praised); today, we might be as likely to note how he calls attention in his work to the process of making that work. There are numerous photographs of Duveneck conducting a workshop with a crowd arrayed behind him; perhaps we are all in that situation as we look at his work, gathered in groups looking over his shoulder, with or without the cigars in our mouths. There is something both fluid and rigid to his rendering of faces. It is as if they are wearing sensual armor. Everywhere we look, we see forms coalescing out of all the painterly elements, though those elements are also constantly on the verge of disassociating from each other. Duveneck knew and had mastered his sense of anatomy, but we sometimes get the sense that flesh has been tacked onto the invisible armature of a skeleton, and is in danger of sagging off like wet clay.

Frank Duveneck Painting Before an Audience (1909), photograph.

This can give us the sense that a portrait is a record of things whirling together and cohering for just a moment before the pieces are reassembled into something else again. It can make a work extraordinarily expressive. The wall label for “Laughing Boy” (c. 1879) calls attention to the parallel of Hals’s “Laughing Boy” (c. 1625), though the differences are equally suggestive. Hals’s boy is clearly a child, which I don’t think can be said of Duveneck’s; Duveneck’s laugher strikes me as a smaller, less furrowed adult. And while the label praises its “infectiously cheerful expression,” I think we also see an edginess in it—as we do in Duveneck’s great trilogy of whistling boys. The laughing boy seems on the border of grotesque, possibly even monstrous—not as a flaw or a satire but as a sign of Duveneck’s sense of what lies beneath (and, possibly, what lies ahead). It is interesting that within a decade or so after Duveneck’s attendance, the Munich Academy of Fine Arts would help to produce painters like Alfred Kubin, Franz Marc, and Lovis Corinth, the first generation of German Expressionists for whom figurative painting would precisely be about harsh and sometimes harrowing observations.

But Duveneck’s abilities and ambitions raise questions about his ultimate achievement. The Baroque was certainly one of the most important tributaries to modernism in the fine arts. Manet too had looked at Velasquez and started producing a sequence of extraordinary neo-Baroque works a decade before Duveneck reached Munich. Why is Manet essential to our sense of modernism (and modernity itself) while Duveneck seems, by contrast, peripheral? Without getting lost in asymmetrical comparisons, it is fair to say that Manet was more rigorously analytic—about everything, to be sure, but in particular about the purpose of all the drama (of character and space) that the painters of the 17th century had opened up. Even in his own genteel way, Manet was more willing to connect the individuals he painted to social milieux and their critiques. Manet both saw the theatricality of his own age and aesthetic and raised questions about it, aware, as Duveneck doesn’t seem to have been, that theatricality eventually produced a sense of distance not just between the artist and his subject, but between the artist and his work, the artist and his audience, and even between the artist and himself.

Manet and Duveneck also shared a common link in Courbet. There had been a major Courbet show in Munich the year before Duveneck arrived at the Academy, and his work was surely in the air. I found myself with unanswered questions about the sort of environment provided Duveneck with his cultural roots. I wish the CAM’s show gave us more of a sense of the artistic and intellectual tenor of life in Munich in the 1870s. It seems to have been the sort of place that was so deeply and intensely imbued with late 19th century idealism that it embraced realism. We know that Duveneck threw in his lot with Munich as his cultural center of gravity rather than, say Paris, though he spent time in Paris on and off between 1886 and 1888 and again in the early 1890s. Imagine what Duveneck would have been able to see in those years, had he looked. As any chronology of Van Gogh’s life and career makes clear, Van Gogh arrived in Paris in 1886 and his palette and sense of pictorial space changed practically within weeks. Manet had his own fraught relationship with Impressionism, but Duveneck seemed to have resisted it even more strongly. Perhaps he saw in it a competing form of extreme painterliness. Nor did Duveneck ever really warm up to the genres where Impressionism—and indeed, modernism itself—found its greatest wealth of subject matter, such as landscape and still life. It is probably fair to say that nature was not Duveneck’s muse. In any case, Duveneck never really wavered in his commitment to figurative work, which by and large was not the genre in which Impressionism, and perhaps modernism itself, expressed itself.

Frank Duveneck, “Boston Common in Winter” (1881), oil on canvas.

In a painting like “Boston Common in Winter” (1881), we can get a sense of the Impressionist that Duveneck might have become. At the top of the painting, we have the elegant neoclassical geometry of the dome of the State House. In the next register, we have the warmer brick and tile of private residences with their clusters of chimneys. But the painting truly comes alive in its bottom third where Duveneck has sketched in the network of walking paths that wind among the bare trees. With incredible economy, he has painted an assortment of people enjoying the park, all in black against the white snow and the grey shadows. In his deft capturing of the varying velocities with which people are passing by, some connecting to each other, most of them unrelated, he is recording the vital pulse of an American city. Some two decades later, the great painters of the Ash Can School and their allies—artists like Sloan, Glackens, and Bellows—could scarcely do better. But painting like this seemed not to be a direction Duveneck chose to pursue. Generally, the crowd that interested him most was on the other side of the canvas, painting alongside him or watching him paint.

Though it is clearly just a sketch, “Boston Common” is signed, perhaps because it was a presentation piece given to a close friend of the woman who would become his wife. But the status of this piece helps raise an interesting and vexing question about Duveneck’s aesthetics, working practice, and perhaps even his psychology. Many of his most electric works are, apparently, unfinished; many of his most “finished” works—like the commissioned portraits that he kept seeking to do—are significantly less interesting and could in any case be taken for the work of any number of other artists. They are less painterly, and it was in his painterliness that his greatest gifts were to be found. In the first decades of his career—which are surely the most significant decades of his work—he seems to have cultivated a reluctance to finish his paintings. Would he have had to make sure that all the wayward parts really came entirely together? Was a finished painting dead to him? Was a finished painting no longer a part of the highly pleasurable dialectic between Duveneck and his students or Duveneck and his fellow painters, taking it outside of the circle of sociability that seemed so central to his working methods? Did it expose him to judgment in ways that something that was always partly a sketch did not? There is a lot we don’t know about the purpose of many of his paintings. Those for which we best know the audience—the formal, commissioned portraits—seem ultimately among the least characteristic. The ones that define his style may have been improvisations, painted either for himself or for the pleasure of his coterie or the instruction of his students—a record of a performance or a teachable moment.

Towards the end of his active career, he paints large, highly “finished” genre paintings, like the four foot by six foot “Water Carriers” (1884) that, as far as I can tell, could have been done by any of dozens of academically trained artists on both sides of the Atlantic. It was a Salon-type piece that, according to the catalogue essay by Curator Julie Aronson, was bought by an Episcopal rector when Duveneck was “’hard up’” in order to “relieve his needs.” Though the exhibit tends to be a little tight-lipped about such things, Duveneck’s finances frequently seem to have been precarious. (The catalogue essay by Colm Toibin on “Frank Duveneck and Henry James” strongly suggests that he was seen that way by his contemporaries.) His economic status may have supplied some of the impetus for him to do his series of etchings, a common way for an artist to bring his skills to a wider market. Though it is fair to say that Duveneck was an accomplished teacher generous with his time and attention, he also seems never to have turned down a paying gig. He relied on his fiancée to help him attract commissions and exhibitions—the things that would have built his career. Indeed he seems to have been so dependent on her efforts and energy expended on his behalf that her apparently anxious father required Duveneck to sign a pre-nuptial agreement that cut off his access to her considerable fortune. (The father relented and withdrew it within a year.)

Frank Duveneck, “Steamer at Anchor, Twilight, Venice” (c. 1884), oil on canvas.

We get a clearer sense of what the 1880s could have been like for Duveneck from two extraordinary paintings of merchant ships done during one of the numerous intervals he spent in Venice. They both capture what it is like to encounter the picturesque in changing times. Set in Venice’s ageless lagoons, both works center on vessels with steel hulls powered by steam engines and driven by screws (rather than sidewheels), but with two masts rigged for sails. Clouds of dark smoke are issuing from the smokestacks of both—perhaps to provide internal power for the anchored boats, but which can’t but help give the impression of a powerful but constrained force panting to get underway. In some ways, they are worthy to be compared to Monet’s series of paintings of the Gare Saint-Lazare, where the steam of the locomotive seems to mingle easily with the puffy white clouds of the Paris sky. The larger of Duveneck’s pictures bears a title that seems almost Whistler-like: “Steamer at Anchor, Twilight, Venice” (c. 1884). Though I have no way to know if the choice of the title was Duveneck’s own, the painting itself calls Whistler to mind; it is a nocturne, in its own way, a painting that sees nature as an evanescent moment, disappearing almost as quickly as we can say we see it, perceived through the filter of what the wall tag reminds us is a “bustling, modern, industrial” world. As the exhibition points out, Duveneck painted “Steamer at Anchor” by appropriating a canvas on which he had begun a more typical figurative work. It does not seem unfair to think that this was a painting that he felt he just had to paint. It is unfinished, though as I suggested earlier, it’s hard to know just what to conclude about the status of so many of Duveneck’s apparently unfinished works.

Frank Duveneck (1848–1919), “United States, At Anchor, Venice, 1884”, oil on canvas, Gift of the Artist, 1915.113

The other Venice seaport painting in the show, “At Anchor, Venice” (1884), is less tumultuous and a little more fully contextualized: there are some recognizable Venetian buildings in the distance, and nearby is a boat wholly powered by sail, a sign of the world that a more modern and industrialized world will be leaving behind. There are men dangling off the side of the steamer painting the bow red. I presume it is a primer coat before the whole hull is repainted black. It reminded me of the way that a 17th century painter might lay down a primer over which the rest of a portrait might be added in a series of glazes. It also seemed to serve as a shrewd observation that we live in a painted environment, if we could only see it. These two pictures seem strongly engaged with the aesthetic and social issues of their times. To the best of my knowledge, two other of America’s greatest painters of Venice, Whistler and Sargent, made nothing that can compare with these.

The subtitle of the CAM exhibit—“American Master”—suggests that it wants to see Duveneck in the context of the American achievement in art in the last few decades before the internationalism of abstraction and high modernity. But for whatever complicated set of reasons—including, I would assume, space—the show does not really succeed in contextualizing Duveneck as a peculiarly American artist. In some ways, perhaps, it is because Duveneck is just a bad fit. The backbone of American painting—the armature of the American visual sensibility—in the 19th century was its engagement with the landscape (some of whose energies turned out to be transferrable to the cityscape). But landscape is a pull that Duveneck very rarely seemed to feel. The show proposes that there is a great richness in the body of work Duveneck produced in his final years in his yearly painting trips to Gloucester on the Massachusetts north shore, but there is only one such work in the show and that single work doesn’t support much of a claim. As a young man in Bavaria, Duveneck regularly went out into the countryside in nearby Polling to paint, and there are some remarkable works from those intervals. “Polling Landscape” (1881) is an unprepossessing and loosely painted picture of a pond surrounded by rushes. It calls to mind many of the more intimate Barbizon landscapes; it would be interesting to see it next to the Museum’s own “Pond at Gylieu” (1853) by Daubigny. Duveneck has brightened the Barbizon palette and revels in his capacity for painterliness, but he’s still looking to models a quarter century old.

Frank Duveneck (1848–1919), United States, “Beechwoods at Polling, Bavaria”, circa 1878, oil on canvas, Cincinnati Art Museum; Gift of the Artist, 1915.93

The standout landscape is “Beechwoods at Polling, Bavaria” (c. 1878), a fabulous view of a thick forest in dappled shade. It is not a landscape about vistas but about impenetrability; there is really nothing here to paint but paint itself. Everywhere you look in this remarkable picture, you can see the energy of abstraction—of how paint itself is more interesting than the things the paint is intended to capture.  There are passages in it that are startlingly abstract, though he sticks to the armature that form and representation give him, as would most artists around that time, American or French. Duveneck would have been one of many artists on the verge of unleashing the stupendous energies that came from seeing that before a painting is referential, it is, after all, just paint. This could have changed everything that he did, but perhaps it also rattled him. Unlike many other American artists, landscape didn’t break Duveneck loose, or take him deeper: I don’t see any evidence in the show that contemplation of nature—or even making art itself—was a spiritual exercise. True to his 17th century roots, he was by and large a materialist, and seems to have felt that making sense out of the mysteries of face and human form was enough.

The wall tag for the Museum’s recently-acquired “Miss Blood (Gertrude Elizabeth Blood, later Lady Colin Campbell)” (1880) situates Duveneck as a competitor—aesthetically if not financially—with other makers of “society portraits” in America such as Sargent and Whistler. But in his best figurative work, there is a meticulous plainness, even a severity, that seems more like Eakins than the others. We see that in work as early as his portrait of “William Adams” (1874) and in the strange and inscrutable portrait of his wife (and former student), Elizabeth Boott Duveneck painted in 1888, two years after their marriage and the year she was to die. Eakins comes to mind when I think of an artist capturing of a subject who has been scrutinized so exhaustively that it reveals almost as much about the painter as the painted. The CAM makes excellent use of Elizabeth Boott’s written records to give us shrewd observations about Duveneck and his world. In addition to her own talents in drawing and painting, the exhibit suggests that she was a witty and loving observer of her husband’s ambitions and habits, a figure of considerable energy and charm. She was fantastically loyal: she bought his works early in their relationship (including the portrait of William Adams) and virtually served as his agent later on.

Frank Duveneck (1848–1919),United States, “Elizabeth Boott Duveneck”, 1888, oil on canvas, Cincinnati Art Museum; Gift of the Artist, 1915.78

But this is not what see in the 1888 portrait. She is completely covered up, except for her face and ears, almost enshrouded in her clothing. I understand that there were strict gender-based codes of dress, but there is nothing soft or warm in this portrait, as there were for some of his other full-length portraits of women. Her face is stern and exhausted. Though it was accepted for the French Salon (as was one of her watercolors), it seems like a painting of an ice queen. I see it as forbidding, though exactly who is forbidding what makes it as psychologically rich as anything in the show. It would be revealing—and might help us understand one intense and puzzling aspect of American realism—to see it next to Eakins’s portraits of his wife Susan Macdowell.

By and large, the figurative tradition in American painting survived the onslaught of modernism by becoming more socially engaged. It might have helped set Duveneck more firmly in the American cultural scene to be able to see his work in the context of a painter like Robert Henri—another artist heavily influenced by Hals—or some of the artists of the Ash Can School in the opening decade or so of the 20th century. The works Duveneck did that are most like Eakins are his most dispassionate; the one work of Henri and his friends and followers show the passionate direction that figurative work might take, if figurative work was going to play a role in the cultural changes of the early 20th century.

In many ways, Duveneck’s reputation depends on three paintings he executed in Munich in the 1870s that combine some of the key elements of European naturalism with the sort of subject matter and approach that will come to define American Ash Can painting. The Ash Can painters embraced figures from the street as their subjects, paying attention to their working lives and their attitudes towards who they are, and what they seem to have thought about being painted. These are, of course, the works collectively labeled “Whistling Boys,” though it is plain to see that what looks like whistling is in fact cigarette smoking. It would be interesting to trace the history of their more anodyne titles. Duveneck seems to have been drawn to smoking as an example of a highly stylized modern gesture. He paid attention to it in these paintings as a sign, presumably, of their independence out on the streets and their skill at playing the roles they have been assigned and have chosen.

Frank Duveneck (1848–1919), United States, “The Whistling Boy”, 1872, oil on canvas, Cincinnati Art Museum; Gift of the Artist,1904.196

In the earliest of the three, “The Whistling Boy” (1872), which was probably known at some point as “Blacksmith’s Boy,” it appears as if the subject has interrupted his work just long enough to permit himself to be drawn. He seems at ease with his body; there is some grace and elegance to the hand that presumably is holding the cigarette. It’s a gesture with which he’s familiar. His face is more finished than his body or his clothes; we can tell that he is toting his work with him, as are each of the boys in the series of paintings, but not exactly what that work is. One would be wrong to feel too protective towards him. He is someone who is used to taking care of himself. He views the artist—and us—with some caution; he could be gone in a moment, vanished back into his own world.

The second, “The Cobbler’s Apprentice” (1877), is perhaps the most iconic of the three: it resides at the Taft and has been reproduced in many different ways over the years, including, with a baseball bat over his shoulder, as the subject of one of Cincinnati’s downtown murals. As the mysterious sign of his working life, he carries a basket in one hand that has a shoe (hence the title?), but also a large cabbage. The tronie tradition comes to mind: how literally are we to take the “information” of such a highly theatrical painting? Of the three, his fingernails are the dirtiest; perhaps he works the hardest, or has in any case the fewest breaks except for this smoking break. Of the three, he is the least interested in catching our eye. It seems as if there’s something of a performance going on here that he doesn’t mind that we see. He knows that we want to see him, and he has decided to allow it; this seems a part of his maturity, and also a part of his act.

Frank Duveneck (1848–1919), United States, “He Lives by His Wits”, 1878, oil on canvas, Collection of Gates Thornton Richards and Margaret Kyte Richards

The third one is “He Lives by his Wits” (1878), an intriguing title that would shed light on a great many of the paintings in the show. He is carrying a jar of some sort; it is hard—or perhaps just not entirely comfortable—to tell what he does (with his wits?) for work. I would say that he is the prettiest of the three and is looking straight at us. It is not impossible that he is partly flirting with his audience. He wears a gold earring. The cobbler’s apprentice was putting his all (or at least most of it) into his performance. This one struck me as the least committed to his show. It’s just a pretext, though it’s hard to say for what. Of the three, the 1878 one is the most reserved and the least predictable. Our encounter might or might not end well. We would sympathize with him at our own risk.

Together, they are an amazing trio, by themselves well worth the trip to the CAM to see. It is a little shocking to consider how young Duveneck was when he painted these: 24 years old for the first one and 30 years old for the last one. It was also a little shocking, when all is said and done, to consider how short Duveneck’s actual productive career was. His typical style emerges around the time of the first “Whistling Boy” in 1872; the steamship paintings, perhaps his most modern works, are some twelve years later. The exhibit itself raises the question of what to make of and how much to value his work in the later years of the 1880s, a mere fifteen years after. There are some excellent isolated pieces a little later in his career—a wonderful painting of his sister Mollie, for example—but it feels like his work after, say, 1888 is directionless. Less than twenty years—really, considerably less than twenty years—and that’s it. As the years go by, there is a real diminution of what is most distinctive about his work. It is interesting to imagine what we would now think of the massive paintings he executed late in life for the Covington Cathedral had they held onto the energy and mystery of his earliest work with its roots in his strong intuitive bonds to the Baroque.

Frank Duveneck, Floating Figure (c. 1884), monotype.

Duveneck seemed to be able to harness his best imaginative energies when he turned to the Baroque. I confess to finding his etchings, for example, stiff and cluttered, but his printmaking came alive when he turned to the form of the monotype, a form invented by Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione in the 17th century. Monotyping enjoyed a late 19th century revival in part due to an increased appreciation of how Rembrandt inked and wiped his plates in different ways to create unique, almost painterly impressions of his etchings. In “Floating Figure” (1884), Duveneck seems to have transformed a reclining naked woman in a studio environment to a nude floating on the sea or perhaps even washed up on a beach. It suggests a connection between sexuality and death that is best left for another discussion. But it is a masterful and highly suggestive print, one of his very few attempts at tragedy in the show. The monotype form may have appealed to Duveneck because it allowed him to explore how he could create a small world with a very few strokes—the opposite of his etchings, which are anything but economical. It allowed him to create his design by adding lines, forms, and shapes and by subtracting them; a partly wiped plate had its own rich chiaroscuro. Monotypes may also have been attractive because there was something of a party atmosphere to making them; the catalogue tells us that in 1884, he “makes monotypes at social gatherings.” They could hold the interest of his non-artist friends who enjoyed watching him create but weren’t ready to sit still for a complete picture.

Duveneck shared with Manet a desire to take figurative art and make it new by taking it back to the 17th century. But Duveneck didn’t seem to have a follow-up. There are searching questions he didn’t ask. He did not really share Manet’s interest in space and theatricality—and Manet’s willingness to turn on his audience, implicating them in the ongoing voyeuristic drama between painter and model. Manet risked losing that audience by not being consistently ingratiating. Could that be said of Duveneck? Duveneck did not bring Degas’s willingness to rethink the compositional possibilities of the figure, or offer up the expressiveness of Van Gogh’s portrait work. Perhaps the most serious question one is left with in the show’s overview of his achievement is whether Duveneck was not ready, not willing, or just not able to see what Paris offered. As the catalogue records, in 1886 Elizabeth Boott shrewdly wrote a friend that “while Florence is charming it is a lot less interesting than Paris for an artist who wants to see what is going on in the world.” Duveneck’s Paris was the Paris of the Salon. He backed the wrong horse.

The CAM show helps us see the several artists that Duveneck was, and the many artists he chose not to become. Oddly, as he matured his work got more academic rather than less, more like the training that his many contemporaries on both sides of the Atlantic were turning their backs on. He was situated to see what modernity would have required of him. Perhaps he thought—and perhaps mistakenly—that he couldn’t do it. One wonders whether he might have thought that he couldn’t afford to do it. Everywhere in the show, we see evidence of the paths he didn’t take. It is generally true that high modernism did not end up making its greatest strides in figurative painting, the genre most congenial to Duveneck. Perhaps more than anything, Duveneck seems to have needed something of his audience—especially the various configurations of audiences that knew him and that he knew personally. Modernism was by and large indifferent to such considerations, and Duveneck was perhaps not prepared to endure that sacrifice. But there will always be the three remarkable, equivocal, whistling boys, with one foot in the sensibilities of the past and one foot facing a very different future.

–Jonathan Kamholtz

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